A look at the current and future USMNT options at the No. 6 position
February 21, 2020
WHEN YOU look at some of the biggest wins in the history of the U.S. men’s national team, chances are you will see an enormous performance the player in the No. 6 defensive midfield position. Historically, it was a position where the U.S. team enjoyed a lot of depth but in recent years that hasn’t been the case.
In 2002 when the U.S. team famously defeated Portugal at the World Cup, Pablo Mastroeni (who only made the team as an injury replacement for Chris Armas) put on a masterful performance at the No. 6 to neutralize Luis Figo, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. In 2009, when the U.S. team ended Spain’s 35-game unbeaten run, it was Ricardo Clark who enjoyed one of the best games of his career in the win. In 2014, Kyle Beckerman did well in the 2-1 win over Ghana.
Over the past 10 years, the position has been in a position of uncertainty for the U.S. team for a variety of reasons.
Michael Bradley and Jermain Jones were the preferred central midfield combination for a long time although neither ever really settled into the No. 6 role. The two only managed to be effective together when Kyle Beckerman introduced as the No. 6. The truth is that Beckerman was a good No. 6 for the team but his peak international years weren’t until after he turned 30, so his tenure wasn’t long.
Danny Williams was once an option but he couldn’t stay healthy for long stretches. Geoff Cameron was also an option but was the victim of his own versatility – where he seemed to play central defense and right back more often for the U.S. team.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked reasons why the U.S. team has struggled in the position was because of the shortened career of Maurice Edu who is still only 33 and had so much promise 10 years ago but injuries began to take their toll before the 2014 World Cup and cost him a chance to make that team.
The lack of true No. 6 players has hurt the team in recent years and it played a role in the team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
But where does it stand now. Here’s a look at the depth chart, different current options, and future options of the No. 6 position.
Tyler Adams: Without a doubt the best option in the U.S. player pool at the No. 6 and his potential was obvious dating back to his days on the New York Red Bulls. There is so much he brings to the game – he has the motor that the No. 6 position demands in the modern game but he also can pass well from distance, get forward when needed, and has the defensive presence to press and win the ball.
But his lengthy absence due to injury in 2019 showed his importance to the team but also the need for depth at the position beyond Adams.
Michael Bradley: Currently injured, Bradley did most of the heavy lifting in central midfield for the U.S. team in 2019. He can still pass the ball well from distance, but with the way Berhalter likes to play with a lone No. 6, the demands on the position are great – and Bradley will likely be 33 the next time he is healthy to play for the U.S. team. He has a lot of leadership abilities but keeping up defensively is hard now for him and will only continue to get harder – assuming he makes a full recovery from his current foot injury. He wasn’t always a No. 6 player for the U.S. team under previous coaches but that clearly seems like his role both under Berhalter and at Toronto. Still, he is probably the second option at this position for the U.S. team for now.
Jackson Yueill: The Minnesota native had a very good year in 2019 and he deserved his first few caps for the U.S. team. Overall, he performed well in Adams’ absence and should play a big role with the U-23 team next month. He can pass very well but the question for him will be his ability to step up defensively and be the disruptive force the position demands. That remains to be seen.
Wil Trapp: The Ohio native came into 2019 in a good state having played under Berhalter for years with Columbus. He had a head start understanding the coach and the system. But overall, he struggled in his chances and right now his role within the team is fading very quickly. Since the semifinals of the 2019 Gold Cup, Trapp has played in just one out of the last nine U.S. national team games. With the rise of other potential options, he might be on the verge of falling off this list altogether.
Second position options
There are also a few options for players who do not play the No. 6 as their first position but can play it as a second position.
Alfredo Morales: Seemingly in a relegation battle in the Bundesliga or a promotional battle in the 2.Bundesliga most years, Morales has seen a lot of difficult situations. This year is no exception. He is typically more of a No. 8 but can handle the physical side of the game that the No. 6 demands. He was in Berhalter’s plans in 2019 and will turn 30 in May. How long he remains with the team depends on the development of younger options but he’s a good option to bide time until the younger players are ready.
Weston McKennie: McKennie is one of the top young players in American soccer. He’s a starter for the U.S. team, but typically in a more advanced midfield position. But his time at Schalke shows that he can play just about anywhere on the field. He’s physical and easily has the motor to cover the ground the position demands. He could shift back to the No. 6 if Berhatler becomes comfortable with a growing number of central attacking midfielders (players like Paxton Pomykal, Richard Ledezma, Brendan Aaronson, etc). For Weston, limiting the occasional bad turnover or sloppy passes are key for him to succeed at the No. 6 because mistakes are far more costly in that area of the field.
Among those players beyond the youth national team levels, there are a few other potential options for Berhalter that he is yet to try.
Russell Canouse: The DC United defensive midfielder is still one of the better American defensive midfielders in the league and has leadership qualities. He’s physical but moving up to the U.S. national team will come down to his ability to adjust to being the lone defensive midfielder as he typically has a partner with DC United.
Kellyn Acosta: Acosta has fallen out of the national team picture under Berhalter but it’s not unreasonable to think he could sneak back in with a strong season at Colorado. He’s more of a No. 8 but can and has played defensive midfield in the past. He has the talent but heading into his prime, a good season in Colorado could have him serve a role where he is an option until younger players are ready.
U-23 age-eligible options
Besides Tyler Adams, Weston Mckennie, and Jackson Yueill (who are more first-team ready now) the U-23 age group has some promising No. 6 prospects.
Brandon Servania: one of the better players in the impressive FC Dallas youth pipeline, Servania showed a lot of qualities in 2019 by helping get FC Dallas into the playoffs and having a strong U-20 World Cup. He has played both the No. 6 and the No. 8 but his best pathway into the full national team is the No. 6 position. He reads the game well, can cover the ground, gets forward effectively, and can pass well. The question will be his defensive and physical presence.
Christian Cappis: Like Servania, Cappis can play the No. 8 and No. 6 but can handle the physical side of the game well. Also, playing in a relegation battle in Denmark is challenging both tactically and physically. The fact that he made the January camp roster (followed by the U-23 camp in November) shows he is on the radar. He is certainly a player to watch and one that could be a legitimate option in the years ahead. It will be exciting to see where he lands after Hobro as the next stage in his development.
Hassani Dotson: Dotson had a very good rookie season with Minnesota in 2019 where he emerged as an option at both fullback roles and in defensive midfield – but playing time is tough at the No. 6 behind Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus. But he has played well in the No. 6 role when given the chance for the U-23s and Minnesota. But he still has a ways to go and his November U-23 camp showed that. He has the pace to meet the demands of the position and is an impressive defensive presence but 2020 will be key for him to show development in his overall game and not that he was just an interesting rookie who plateaued.
Chris Durkin: Durkin was once one of the most promising American prospects at the U-17 level but since then he had uneven playing time at DC United and had mixed performances at the 2019 U-20 World Cup. But in recent months he has been a regular starter for St. Truiden in Belgium’s top flight where he is anchoring the defensive midfield position for one of the smaller teams in Belgium’s top flight. He’s not one of the most athletic defensive midfield prospects in the pool but he is one of the smartest and has as a solid technical base. Continued development in Belgium and perhaps a move to a bigger club should keep him in the conversation.
James Sands: Sands is an interesting case. He couldn’t get into the U-20 picture in 2019 under Tab Ramos and is behind others for the 2020 U-23 team. But his play with New York City FC has been surprisingly steady – despite an injury last year. If he can continue to start for NYCFC this year (and NYCFC is one of the best in the East) there is no reason why he shouldn’t be in the conversation as well. The fact he started in the CONCACAF Champions League opener was promising.
U-20 age-eligible options
Even below the U-23 options, you can dig deeper to find U-20 players who could be in the mix in the years ahead.
Owen Otasowie: The Wolverhampton product has already gotten a taste of first-team football with Wolves in cup matches. He’s even made the bench in Premier League matches. He’s tall, physical, and technical. He’s a key U.S. prospect but the question is whether he gravitates towards defensive midfield or central defense.
Tyler Booth: Now with Bayern Munich’s U-19 and U-23 teams, Booth is a steady passer who can read the game well. He could eventually gravitate towards the No. 8 position.
Johnny Cardoso: One of the more intriguing American prospects is Johnny Cardoso who played with the U.S. U-23 team in October for his first ever U.S. appearance. Raised in Brazil, the New-Jersey-born Cardoso has been getting first team minutes for an Internacional team which is one of the biggest clubs in all of South America. 2020 could be a year where he breaks out and he should be a key U-20 player this year.